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Dependent Origination says, given the consciousness, name and form arises.

But in SN12.65 it says name-form is condition for consciousness:

When consciousness exists there are name and form. Consciousness is a condition for name and form.’
‘viññāṇe kho sati nāmarūpaṁ hoti, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpan’ti.

Then it occurred to me:
Tassa mayhaṁ, bhikkhave, etadahosi:

‘When what exists is there consciousness? What is a condition for consciousness?’
‘kimhi nu kho sati viññāṇaṁ hoti, kiṁpaccayā viññāṇan’ti?

Then, through rational application of mind, I comprehended with wisdom:
Tassa mayhaṁ, bhikkhave, yoniso manasikārā ahu paññāya abhisamayo:

‘When name and form exist there’s consciousness. Name and form are a condition for consciousness.
‘nāmarūpe kho sati viññāṇaṁ hoti, nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇan’ti.

My question is : Is there a circular reasoning in dependent origination of name-form and consciousness?

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    Can you identify what "circular reasoning" you're asking about -- what or where are you saying might be circular?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 27, 2023 at 13:56
  • @ChrisW It is circular in the sense that consciousness leads to name and form and name and form leads to consciousness. I thing name and form leads to six senses, which have consciousness of course but I think consciousness itself comes before name and form according to DO. Nov 27, 2023 at 14:19
  • I was going to ask exactly what ChrisW asked. Since I'm late, that consciousness is a condition for name is obvious but can you explain how consciousness - or anything else - is a condition for form? Are you suggesting 'form' cannot exist without being somehow percieved? Nov 28, 2023 at 21:51

4 Answers 4

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Yes, in my understanding it is circular.

But first let us clarify our definitions.

Translating vijnana as consciousness is misleading. Vijnana is differentiated subjective experience. In other words, it's a "parsed" experience of a situation: "This is my bedroom at night, I can see my bed, the clock, and the humidifier".

Furthermore, in context of DO namarupa does not refer to the mind-and-body. It literally means name-forms or simply "notions" - our ideas of objects like bedroom, night, bed, clock, humidifier.

Now you can understand the meaning. A newborn baby does not yet have an experience of the bedroom. Everything is mixed up, there's no separation. The baby does not understand anything, does not know where it is and what's around.

Then, gradually, over a long time, it accumulates thousands or millions of observations, until it starts forming very vague ideas about its world: this is the mother, this is where she comes through (there's no notion of the door yet), eating feels good, and so on.

At first the baby's namarupas are very primitive, very vague - and so is the baby's vijnana. As more and more namarupas are established, identified, and acquired from repeated interactions with the environment - the vijnana gets more and more detailed, nuanced, and robust. As vijnana gets more detailed, the baby's interactions with the environment get more interesting and its desires get more complex. This, in turn, leads to more namarupas getting established.

It goes like this, cyclically, iteratively, with samskaras (behavioral tendencies), vijnana (differentiated experience), and namarupas (notions of forms) supporting and feeding each other as they grow and mature.

The rest of the DO sequence is a further development of the same material. We are talking about samjna, vedana, tanha, upadana, and so on — but all of them are "made from" samskaras, namarupas, and vijnana — just more specialized. Our mental world gets more and more detailed until we are trapped in it.

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  • Can you please provide me the link to the dictionary where it says that "vijnana " is consciousness? I think "vinnana" is consciousness. I searched the pali dictionary for word "vijnana". There is no such word. dictionary.sutta.org/browse/v/vijana Nov 28, 2023 at 10:17
  • Vijñāna is Sanskrit, in Pali it is spelled viññāṇa
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 28, 2023 at 10:20
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This is purely speculative and based on my understanding. Vinnana mentioned at this stage is a relatively primitive consciousness that is inner focused and do not interact with the external environment. Through a process of identification and association (namarupa), it starts to associates various sensory inputs from different sense organs. Similarly, the mind also learns to disassociate sensory inputs based on their sensory sources.

An example would be a foetus that is developing. Initially, the consciousness is internal and is unaware of the external environment. As its sense organs began to develop, skin, ear, tongue and so on, sensory inputs start to be received. A long process of learning, identifying and associating ensue. With the developing sense organs providing more inputs, the mind identifying and utilizing these inputs thus further strengthening the development of the senses. Eventually, the mind evolves to a point where it is aware of and interact with its external environment.

It is scientifically known that sense organs that are not utilized eventually devolve. The mutually supportive nature of our senses and consciousness is a clue to how a higher consciousness can emerge from a lower albeit primitive state.

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SN 12.65 begins with the statement: "Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening". Therefore, SN 12.65 is a primitive/very early explanation of Dependent Origination. Here, Dependent Origination is not traced back to ignorance. Therefore, when Gotama asked the question: ‘When what exists is there consciousness? What is a condition for consciousness?’; the answer was nama-rupa (the mind-body). This answer is not spiritual. Instead, this answer is more biological/neurological. This answer is similar to SN 22.82, which says the cause (hetu) & condition (paccaya) of consciousness is nama-rupa: "Name-and-form is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the consciousness aggregate".

However, later, the Buddha traced the condition of consciousness to the three sankhara (kaya, vaci & citta sankaro), which are conditioned by ignorance. The twelve conditions of Dependent Origination in SN 12.2 is the full explanation. SN 12.65 is a partial explanation. We should not cause ourselves the common confusion of imputing SN 12.65 upon SN 12.2.

It has been answered for other questions that consciousness cannot arise without a condition, thus:

  1. In MN 38, the condition for the arising of consciousness is the sense bases.

  2. In SN 22.53, the condition for the arising of consciousness is the other aggregates.

  3. In SN 12.65 & SN 22.82, the condition for the arising of consciousness is nama-rupa.

  4. In SN 12.2, the condition for the arising of consciousness is sankhara.

  5. In MN 43, consciousness cannot arise without feeling & perception.

Therefore, it is best to not get caught up in the common obsession about SN 12.65 referring to a "circular" relationship between consciousness & namarupa in Dependent Origination. Instead, it is best to simply view SN 12.65 as another explanation of how consciousness cannot arise without a condition and how Dependent Origination is not about a disembodied independent consciousness that leaps/relinks in life to life reincarnation.

From the very beginning, the Buddha warned us to not fall into the obsessions & corruptions of worldly priests & money chasing monks, who seek to look for any opportunity to manufacture ideologies about reincarnation. The Buddha was clear that consciousness is not a pseudo soul (atman; jiva) that is reincarnated over many lifetimes. There is one sutta where Mara searches for the consciousness of a dead monk. It is Mara that believes consciousness reincarnates from life to life. Where is the Buddha taught consciousness depends upon rupa (materiality).

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  • this is right. form and consciousness co-arise, so the circularity is just a slowing down of the same thing..
    – blue_ego
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:46
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There is this mysterious line from DN14:

‘This consciousness turns back from name and form, and doesn’t go beyond that.’

It's spooky and it gives me the sense that consciousness is looking for a body, but the noble ones have denied it such - the form has been severed and we are dealing with a formless world.

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    This just means our entire world of subjective experience (vijnana) is bounded by our notions (namarupas). There's no experience beyond notions.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 28, 2023 at 2:09
  • yeah both are plural but that's too obvious to discuss.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 29, 2023 at 2:59
  • now that's too difficult for me, let it be.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 29, 2023 at 3:57

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